Forget Education Saviors – They Aren’t Coming

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I feel so left out.

I get the emails just like you:



Run Warren Run!

Run Sanders Run!



Are You Ready for Hillary?

But I just can’t get excited about any of them as potential presidential candidates in 2016.

Sure I like Elizabeth Warren’s stance to hold Wall Street accountable. I like Bernie Sanders‘ New Deal rhetoric. I even like Hillary Clinton’s overwhelming confidence and competence.

But none of them pass the most important test.

None of them are really committed to supporting our public school system.

For education advocates like me, it’s a case of being once bitten, twice shy.

One of President Obama’s campaign promises was that he would reform our education system. And he did! If by “Reform” you mean “make things much worse!”

I remember watching him at a 2008 rally in my hometown as he spoke about standardized testing overload and how we needed to support teachers. He promised to improve No Child Left Behind, hold charter schools accountable, provide better resources for struggling schools instead of punishing them, etc.

I was so overwhelmed that a politician actually cared about the same things I did, as he was leaving the arena I reached over the barrier and shook his hand. (Personal Note: he moisturizes.)



I hung signs, I passed out “Hope” buttons, I took to the phones – things I had never before done for a political candidate. And the results are less than overwhelming.

Sure he’s done some good things. Obamacare’s not bad. It’s a good first step toward universal single-payer healthcare. Yes, it’s nice we finally got Osama bin Laden, federal stimulus, drawing down troops on foreign soil – it’s all a step up from his predecessor.

But when it comes to education, Obama is actually worse than George W. Bush.

It’s so liberating to say that out loud. Liberating and scary.

Standardized testing, national curriculum, privatization – all of these have become worse under Obama. While he and his laughably unqualified Education Secretary Arne Duncan still pay lip service sometimes to the problem of toxic testing, they make no move to reduce it. They just increase their support year-after-year.

Whenever you say this to a hardcore Democrat, they usually respond that it’s not his fault. He was blocked from initiating the policies he wanted by a Republican Congress, they say. And this is true on some issues, but education isn’t one of them. He’s chief executive. He controls the US Department of Education and thus national policy.

Race to the Top and all its failures belong squarely at his feet. It will be interesting to see him try to distance himself from these policies in his retirement years attempting to preserve a legacy as a liberal lion. Nice growl. Toothless bite.

So I hope I may be forgiven for looking toward the horizon. Is there anyone on the political scene who promises to change this situation in 2016?

The short answer: no.

There are Republican legislators who oppose Common Core, but their criticism often comes down to – Ooooh! Yuck! A black man touched it!



I fear that if a member of the GOP somehow gains our highest office, Common Core will suddenly be rebranded as something Saint Reagan thought of – or perhaps something Jesus told W. to bring to the people along with endless war and tax cuts for the rich.

Those few conservatives who actually do have a reasoned argument against Common Core lose me when they talk about what should replace it. Because it’s usually school choice.

I guess it makes sense. They hate any kind of national curriculum or standards but have no problem with leaving it all in the hands of big business privatizers. They take it too far like someone whose boots are too tight so he spends the rest of his life barefoot in all weather.

So I turn back to my Democrats – the party of my father. And I’ll admit it proudly – I’m a lifelong, FDR-loving, donkey riding, social policy supporting Dem. But when I look around at the current crop of democratic presidential hopefuls, there’s not much support for education.

Take Hillary Clinton – the clear frontrunner for the party nomination.

This is not her first rodeo. Her positions are no mystery. All you have to do is a little bit of research to see what she’s championed in her long career in public service.

And she’s been on the right side from time-to-time.

She’s pushed for universal pre-kindergarten, arts education, after-school tutoring, smaller class sizes and the rights of families.

As a college student in the 1960s, she even volunteered to teach reading to children in poor Boston neighborhoods. She fought to ensure voting access for African Americans and even worked at an alternative newspaper in the black community.

However, at core she’s a true political animal. Whatever her real feelings on the issues, she never lets that get in the way of an expedient compromise.

Sometimes that’s a good thing – but when it comes to education, that usually means someone’s losing big – and that someone’s usually a child.

For example, she opposes religious instruction in public schools – but sees no problem with school-led prayers.

She is against merit pay for individual teachers but champions it for entire schools.

She opposes using taxes to fund students attending private or parochial schools but thinks parents should be able to choose among public schools.

And she is a strong advocate for charter schools as a solution to the media-driven fallacy of “failing” public schools.

But perhaps worst of all is her support for Common Core. Both she and her husband backed national standards before they were even called Common Core.

One of President Bill Clinton’s central education policies (to which Hillary gave her full support) was a push for national voluntary education standards – something that Republicans in Congress vehemently opposed and squashed. Then George W. Bush became president and the Republicans suddenly loved the idea until Obama championed it, too.

As much as I admire Hillary Clinton, the person, I cannot trust Hillary Clinton, the politician. Even if she changed her stated views on all education issues and received the full support of the NEA and AFT, I could never trust that if the winds changed she wouldn’t change her positions right back.

That takes us to Elizabeth Warren – Clinton’s main challenger for the nomination.

Warren hasn’t announced that she’s running. In fact, she’s denied it many times. However, my buddies on the left are completely enamored of her.

Moveon.org is trying to generate support on the Left for Warren to challenge Clinton. And they have good reasons. There’s plenty to like about her.

She was an early advocate for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She’s opposed big banks being labeled “too big to fail” and pushed to hold Wall Street accountable for the risky business practices that crashed our economy. She’s in favor of increasing the minimum wage and fighting against income inequality.

But for all that, she’s strangely quiet on education policy.

The only major education legislation she’s supported in her time in the Senate is reducing loan rates for college students.

Strange for someone who actually worked as a teacher!

For a year she taught children with disabilities in a public elementary school in New Jersey. Though she had originally aspired to be a teacher, she didn’t finish her degree. She used an emergency certification. Then she moved on to law school.

With a personal story like that, it’s not surprising the NEA supported her successful run for John Kerry’s Senate seat.

So what’s the problem?

She wrote a book – not a minor article, not an off-the-cuff remark – an entire book championing school choice.

It’s called The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke. In it, she makes a case for a universal school voucher program. She strongly supported giving parents taxpayer-funded vouchers they could use at any school – public, private or parochial. This would “relieve parents from the terrible choice of leaving their kids in lousy schools or bankrupting themselves to escape those schools.”

Not exactly the kind of policy you’d expect from a far left liberal – but she was a Republican then. As soon as she changed parties, her support for school choice was stashed in the closet.

When asked about it, she said she was misunderstood. Like Clinton, she said she never intended taxpayer money to go to private or parochial schools – only that parents could chose an adjacent public school for their children if they wished.

It’s a huge stain on an otherwise nearly blank book. Like Obama, she can rhapsodize on the importance of public schools as much as she wants at her stump speeches. I’d like to see her support some real education policies before backing her horse for president.

Could she convince me? Maybe. If I’m honest, I want to be convinced. But I need more than words. I need deeds.

Which brings me to the last populist champion for the Democratic Presidential nomination – Bernie Sanders.

The Vermont Senator is technically an Independent but he caucuses with the Democrats. In fact, unlike most on the left who cringe at the label “Socialist,” Sanders actually uses it to describe himself as a Democratic Socialist.

He’s been a leader calling for breaking up media monopolies, and a staunch supporter of universal healthcare. He was against the bank bailout and a warrior against income inequality.

Though education policy has never been his forte, his voting record is mostly positive. He voted to increase federal funding for public schools, in favor of grants to Black and Hispanic colleges, in favor of reducing class size in the early grades, against school prayer, and against school choice. In fact, he is one of the most aggressive enemies of school vouchers in Congress.

Most recently, when President Obama suggested making two years of community college free for everyone, Sanders championed going even further– free tuition at any public college or university!

It’s a pretty impressive record. However, it’s not perfect.

In 1998, he voted to expand funding for charter schools. Considering that his home state of Vermont had zero charters at one point – yes, zero – it’s unclear how knowledgeable he was on the issue. It certainly doesn’t sound like the kind of thing he’d be for now. That was 17 years ago. Has he learned more in the meantime? Is he now for or against charters? It’s unclear.

Even more damning, in May 2001, he voted for No Child Left Behind requiring states to conduct annual standardized testing. That’s hardly an unforgivable sin. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Congress fully against testing – especially back in 2001.

But that wasn’t his only misstep. Sanders also showed brief support for Common Core. As recently as 2011, he explicitly supported legislation to expand it in Vermont. However, lately he has refused to give an opinion either for or against it.

Could he be souring on corporate education reform? The most tantalizing answer lies in legislation he helped author in 2013.

In a bid to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, he developed legislation that would have allowed states to demonstrate student learning through innovative projects instead of standardized testing. The bill fizzled, however, with lack of Congressional will.

Is Sanders evolving away from the testocracy of Bush and Obama or is he just playing it close to the vest? I would like to know more. Sanders would need to do some work to convince me he is on the side of public schools, but he might be able to do it. If that’s what he really wanted.

Of the three candidates examined here, he is most likely to become a true education advocate. But he is also least likely to receive the party’s nomination or to win a general election.

So where does that leave us? Who can I support as a possible education savior in 2016?

The answer again: no one.

We have to face it, people. No one is coming to save us and our children. There never will be. Politicians aren’t made of that kind of self-sacrificing stuff. Not Democrats, Republicans or Independents.

Those of us who cherish public education will have to push 2016 hopefuls to move as far our way as possible. But when it comes to the actual election, we may have to face the distinct possibility that there will be no one in whom we can safely vote.

We may have to run our own independent candidate – someone with no chance of winning, but who might continue to push the mainstream candidates toward education. Because no matter who wins, chances are he or she won’t be as friendly toward public schools as they are toward the lobbying dollars of the privatizers and standardization movement.

We can’t elect our way to sound education policy. It will take a massive popular movement of parents, teachers, students and people of conscience. Demands will be made. Protests will be staged. Revolutions may be waged.

Because the only education savior we can count on is us.


This article also was published in the LA Progressive and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

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19 thoughts on “Forget Education Saviors – They Aren’t Coming

  1. I’m pretty cynical about the Democrats, but if you think Warren or Sanders wouldn’t be a big improvement over, well, anyone since…? Lyndon Johnson? You’re dreaming. Warren isn’t going to run if Hillary does, and you’re just not going to get anyone to the left of Bernie Sanders.

    Regardless, public education does not need a federal presidential savior, it just needs a not horrible and intrusive federal Department of Education. A poor policy indifferently pursued would be a big improvement.

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  2. Thank-you for your article. I have been feeling the same way. Hillary is too pro-business. Elizabeth Warren is on the Education Committee but her comments seem to deal only with accountability for federal dollars being spent on education. I don’t hear anything from Bernie Sanders about education. When Neil DeGrasse Tyson said he succeeded despite his teachers, I wanted to cry. Even Robert Reich seems to have nothing good to say about our public schools. At least we have Matt Damon and Montel Williams. Here in NYS, we do have two prominent politicians who are pro-public education, Democrat Zephyr Teachout and Green Party’s Howie Hawkins. Perhaps they can help.

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  3. Very well-researched and reasoned. As a working public-school teacher in one of the states where public schools and their employees are most beleaguered by Republicans (Texas), I’ve been equally angered and disheartened by Obama’s education policies. Thanks for pointing out the lack of enlightened leadership in this area. The question now becomes what are public school advocates to do? Are we too divided in our opinions and voting habits to matter to either party? Public school issues include racism, sexism, immigrants rights, freedom of speech and expression, technological resource inequities, income inequality, public health issues, mental health issues, states’ rights, separation of church and state, labor rights, and on and on. In Texas, even those conservatives who are appalled at the Republican plans to privatize public schools would never vote against their party because of its stand against reproductive rights and immigration reform. So the oligarchs win hands down as those who care about public schools are so divided on so many issues. How do we galvanize?

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  4. I agree, it’s disappointing but if there’s anyone who might not vote along party lines, it’s Sanders. We just have to make sure our voice is heard. Where are the NEA and the state associations? What are they doing to make sure people open to change hear what needs to be done?

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  5. […] Certainly there is no opposition party. The Democrats are almost as corrupt as the Republicans, and what’s more, they’re much weaker. After 8 years of President Obama, they’ve only lost more state houses, more governors’ mansions, more political offices and prestige. Whenever they’ve been in a position to actually oppose the plutocracy, they’ve mostly limited themselves to empty, symbolic gestures or even tried to mimic the worst behaviors of the GOP. […]

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